This is the 9th post in my Lenten series on depression based on Monica A. Coleman’s book Not Alone.
Like many people with depression, I have often, and sometimes still do, think of depression as an evil entity, almost a sentient being in its own right that stalks me like orcs or goblins from the Land of Mordor. I have even thought of depression as the devil itself – an embodiment or manifestation of all things evil. Depression can truly be a demon.
Monica A. Coleman spends an entire chapter on how depression has been thought about and written about in just this way – like a demon. She notes that Andrew Solomon’s National Book Award winning The Noonday Demon, even refers to depression as something demonic in its title. She reports on the language of depression as being: “ghost,” “demon,” “unholy,” “coming,” “stalking,” “taking over,” “turning me into someone else.”
She offers a poem by Jane Kenyon, “Having It Out with Melancholy,” which contains a section called “Credo” :
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again. Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet on the coffee table, lean back, and turn me into someone who can’t take the trouble to speak; someone who can’t sleep, or who does nothing but sleep; can’t read, or call for an appointment for help. There is nothing I can do against your coming. When I awake, I am still with thee.Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (pp. 91-92). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition..
Coleman remarks that you can feel unlike yourself when you live with depression. It is like being possessed by demons or spirits. I have to wonder if this feeling of being unlike one’s self contributed to the concept of being possessed by spirits. It’s easy to imagine that back in the pre-scientific era of humanity it would have been a logical assumption for this feeling that, as Pink Floyd sang, “There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” The profound darkness, evil and suffering of depression leads to many people of faith developing a frame of reference where they try to find some redeeming quality or lesson in the pain of depression. I agree with Coleman, however, and have always been “loathe to say that we suffer in order to learn or grow. It’s nice when we can grow or learn after experiences of suffering, but generally speaking, suffering sucks.” I have learned and even grown in some ways because of depression, but it has not been redeeming. This suffering that caused my learning was not what saved me, the suffering and pain just hurt. Depression sucks. Suffering sucks.
I am blinded to any fable-like moral. I have no time for reflection— I’m just surviving in the limbo that is depression.
Coleman, Monica A. (2012-08-24). Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression (p. 94). Inner Prizes, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
And just surviving sometimes takes all our energy. It is exhausting battling demons.
Reflection questions from Not Alone
Have you ever learned something new about yourself or the world after a depression?
I am finding that after I began to let it do so, depression itself had lessons to teach me about being me in the world. I have learned to pay attention to my introversion, but also to seek out help and company and fellowship. I have learned to sit and wait and have begun to concentrate more on pleasing myself rather than to please others. I have learned to take risks instead of always playing it safe. I also think I have learned more about depression.
Through the work of Moncia A Coleman, Andrew Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) Jeffry Smith ( Where Roots Reach for Water: A Personal and Natural History of Melancholia) and others, I have finally stopped thinking of depression as an evil monster out to drag me off to the Land of Mordor. Most of the time, anyway.
As Parker Palmer reports in his essay All the Way Down
“After the hours of careful listening, my therapist offered an image that helped me, eventually to reclaim my life. “You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,” he said. “Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”
Often we think of depression like this – an enemy – and although with friends like depression I don’t need any enemies, I understand what Parker Palmer is talking about. It’s not that we passively accept the darkness and evil that depression brings, nor that we think of the suffering it causes as somehow redemptive or “good for us” but perhaps it is prophetic, being forced to the ground, crushed, and we have no choice sometimes but to hear what we don’t want to hear and see what we don’t want to see. The depression just is and as Palmer suggests, it requires more than faith and more than just medical science to deal with the experience of depression, it requires an acceptance of mystery.
This past week, I heard something from my own therapist that I had not though about before. It was a simple reversal in how the medical science of depression can get our experience of depression wrong. My therapist said that often medicine looks at depression as something with symptoms that need to be cured or alleviated, when the reality is that sometimes depression is a symptom itself of something else that is physically wrong. In this way the depression can be the friend pressing you to the ground.
Who can offer you rest when you are exhausted?
Lately, I have come rely on community to offer me rest when I am exhausted. I used to let the exhaustion of depression and the fatigue of “battling the darkness” keep me from people, not just physically but emotionally. I would both stay away from people – easy to do because I am an introvert anyway and I would refrain from telling people just how bad I actually felt. Over the last year, I have increasingly gone out to be with people, usually a friend or a small group even though I was battling the darkness. It was counterintuitive at first to every introvert bone in my body, but just the being around people helped me feel more like me and less like I was someone I didn’t recognize. This retrieving of myself in its own right made me less tired and less exhausted. Of course, the risk of being with others when in the darkness means I had to stop lying to them and to myself about how I was. It was going to be obvious sometimes that I was horrible and I had to admit to that and let others in on being depressed or lonely or sad or grieving. I am particularly grateful to my colleagues in the ministry for being supportive. Like many professions, the ministry and the Unitarian Universalist ministry is a career ladder and like other professions fosters a competitiveness that is intrinsically part of our culture. I had been afraid to really trust many colleagues for a long time because of this, but have found to both my benefit and I admit my surprise, the vast majority of them to be extremely supportive. In fact, I don’t know what I would have done the last 18 months without them.
A couple of notes: 1. I have not been strictly chronological in following Coleman’s book, I have skipped around a bit and with two weeks to go until Easter, I will not cover every one of the 40 chapters. I had grand ambitions when Lent started to blog once a day on the reflection of the day, but the realities of life – and life with depression – just prevented that. It goes without saying that this is an important book for people of faith, including the spiritual but not religious, who lives with depression (either their own or that of family or friends). 2. I have been tempted to interrupt the series on depression for some other posts, especially some important posts about mission, missional living, the Minns Lectures and other topics of liberal church life. I have decided to hold them until after Lent so as not to interrupt the series. I am hoping they will all still be timely and worth reading after Easter.